Digging through Mishna shows wisdom of ancient laws – jewishpresstampa

Posted By on September 28, 2021

I was introduced to the Mishna in rabbinical school. It is the codification of Jewish oral law as written down in its final form by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi in the 3rd century CE. The laws in it supplement and expand Torah law which was often not comprehensive enough to cover changing circumstances.

I found most of these Mishna laws to be of historical interest but little else. This assessment included the laws dealing with agriculture. I was not a farmer and did not plan to be one.

Then came the pandemic, with its push for outdoor gatherings. Suddenly, these ancient laws for growing crops took on meaning in ways I could not have anticipated.

Donna and I had always enjoyed planting in our flower beds, so we decided to join our neighborhood community garden called Vista. It was the perfect option for safe socialization and offered an opportunity to do something we enjoyed. Thus, we became pandemic-induced gentleman farmers. Normally, a gentleman farm covers 50 to 70 acres. But in our case, our 4 x 16-foot plot has been about all the acreage we could handle.

Our first task was to decide what and where in our raised bed to plant. The experienced gardeners at Vista suggested that Donna and I read up on the subject to help decide.

Yet, as I began to read, I suddenly remembered those antiquated agricultural laws in the Mishna. I did not expect them to help, but I was curious to see how they compared to todays instructions.

When I reread the Tractate Zraim (order of seeds) for example, I learned that our ancestors believed you should not plant seeds of different varieties together. Some Rabbis argued that the stronger variety would steal nutrients from the weaker, resulting in a diminished harvest. Maimonides, a 12th century rabbi, admitted he did not know why the Rabbis had made that law, but that we should follow their advice.

It turns out that the earlier Rabbis were correct. Science today tells us that when you plant different varieties in the same place, they end up competing for sunlight, water, minerals, and space. Donna and I learned that lesson the hard way. We planted bush beans right under a towering tomato plant and the beans never produced.

Our rabbi farmers were also right about where to plant specific crops in a vegetable garden, and how far apart to space them. They even described and drew suggested plot layouts. For example, Mishna 1 in Chapter 3 of Kilayim (mixed species) reads, A garden bed which is six handbreadths by six handbreadths may be sown with five different species of seeds, four on the four sides of the bed and one in the middle. Though our plot was larger, our plant layout, as suggested by Vista Garden experts, was identical to one noted in the Mishna text. Who knew?

Another tractate in Mishna Zraim called Sheviit (seventh year) sets the law for soil management. The biblical basis for the law is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. There, our ancestors command us to leave the land in Israel fallow for one year on a seven year (sheviit) rotating basis. This law is also scientifically sound by modern standards. Growing plants in the same soil year after year depletes it of its essential nutrients and deprives it of its ability to regenerate naturally.

That our tradition mandates a cessation of planting in the seventh year was not new to me. But what I did not expect was the in-depth description in the Mishna text of manures and other amendments that should be added to the soil.

Yet, as Donna and I enhanced the soil in our plot with successive layers of mulch, compost, peet, and a cover crop of high nitrogen peas grown over the summer, I suddenly remembered reading about these additives of old.

Today, several Talmudic legal issues swirl around the Shmitah law. One such case asks if a Jewish farmer in Israel is allowed to plant in the seventh year if he does so by inserting seed into a compost and mulch filled fabric sock? Since he technically would not be planting directly into the earth, should that not suffice as a halachic workaround?

It is amazing how a new experience can breathe life into what I previously considered outdated and irrelevant. The same can also be said about my attachment to the holiday of Sukkot. Experiencing it literally now from the ground up has given me a new appreciation for the fear our forbearers faced at this time of the year. Building sukkot to be near their fields to protect their crops from danger was not the quaint practice it has become for us. For them, without grocery store backup, following every aspect of Sukkot and agricultural law was a matter of life and death. No wonder they rejoiced when the harvest was successful. We should try to capture their joyous spirit in our own Sukkot celebrations.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the TRA.

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Digging through Mishna shows wisdom of ancient laws - jewishpresstampa

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